Chef Gray Townsend weds the fresh-grown goodness of his rearing with hands-on education in metro area eateries. He now puts those savory skills to work at La Brioche at the Museum, at the Mississippi Museum of Art.
“Cooking is just in the family,” says Townsend, who grew up in Rankin County and, now with his own house and young family in Florence, still calls it home. An ever-present ball cap either signals his Southern roots — “Make Cornbread Not War” — or his near lifelong New York Yankees fandom.
Traditional Southern was the style he cut his teeth on — fresh, seasonal garden vegetables, fried chicken, canning — in a family of farmers, dairy and cattlemen. “Just growing up, we’ve always had some style of … vegetable garden or livestock around,” he says, continuing that rural nod with the chickens and small garden he and his wife, Haruko, keep.
Townsend’s restaurant path started as a 19-year-old cook at the opening of the first Five Guys, learning the basics. From there, Townsend went to Babalu, learning first under then-chef David Ferris and continuing to pick up techniques from other chefs as he rose to corporate trainer, helping open six different Babalus across the South, and also sous chef positions. His first executive chef venture was at Doe’s Eat Place in Florence. He also worked as kitchen manager at Shaggy’s on the Rez.
“I learn something new every day, whether it’s reading something, or Googling or YouTubing … just to continue to keep my brain swirling and stay on top of everything and not ever be complacent in this industry,” says Townsend, who’ll turn 30 in October. He’s been with La Brioche since early this year.
“Growing up, we didn’t do French pastry — not traditional French pastry at least,” he concedes with a chuckle. But, his mom did a lot of baking, including six-tiered wedding cakes and icing-drenched Southern petits fours. He watched and learned there, too, he says, but savory always stuck with him more than sweet. With La Brioche, Townsend’s title is savory chef de cuisine; pretty pastries and delectable sweets are in the hands of La Brioche co-owner and pastry chef de cuisine Alejandra Mamud. The museum location also handles some savory prep work for La Brioche Patisserie’s sister restaurant, Whisk Creperie at Cultivation Food Hall.
“For me, it’s not just an ego thing as a chef,” seeking best chef or best dish renown, Townsend says. “I want to make really good food that people want to come back for, but I also want to be sustainable for my family,” with his wife and two little boys — Reilly, 2½, and Baker, 14 months. “That’s really the end game.”
The cafe’s corner at the museum is a breezy pocket of modern furniture and glass windows that look out onto the porch and Art Garden.
La Brioche at the Museum is now in the midst of a rebranding as a stand-alone savory cafe, with bistro-styled lunch foods, appetizers, sandwiches, salads, weekly soups, and a few hot entrees. Townsend describes it as French technique meets Southern flair and international influences. The launch is aimed for this fall. They’ll showcase La Brioche’s sweets and pastries as dessert options, “so I have that as my upper hand,” he says. He embraces the challenge of developing the new menu and tapping into the downtown lunch crowd.
Until then, Townsend and his team put their spin on the inherited menu. The Bistro (on flatbread, ciabatta or spinach wrap) is a popular pick with turkey, brie and herb spread, apple and pepper relish. “That brie and apple and pepper relish play on each other — it’s really good.” The Parisian chicken salad is his take on a family recipe — smoked chicken, fresh vegetables, grapes, a little aioli, tarragon creme fraiche, and walnut pesto, on a fresh-baked croissant or other bread options.
Townsend’s ultimate aim for customers is this reaction: “I’ve never had this dish, like that, and I want it again!” Enough familiarity to entice interest, enough flair to warrant a wow.
La Brioche at the Museum at 308 South Lamar Street is open Tuesday thru Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Their Fondren pastry shop located at 2906 North State Street is open Monday to Friday from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and Saturday from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.